Shots in the dark over Syria's
skies By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Israeli opposition leader
Benjamin Netanyahu, while becoming the first
official of that country to admit that it did
conduct an air raid into Syria on September 6,
sheds no further light on the escapade, thus
adding to the mountain of speculation that already
exists on the incident.
Netanyahu said on
Thursday that he had given Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert his support for "an attack", and promptly
drew a rebuke from the premier for speaking out of
Israel has imposed a media blackout
on the events of the night of
September 6, when Syria
claimed its airspace in the northern province of
Raqqa had been violated and that its defenses
forced Israeli F-15 jets to flee, dropping
"munitions" and fuel tanks in the desert near the
The US media insist,
however, that the Israelis hit something major.
The latest reports, attributed to "US government
sources", say that Israel, with tacit assistance
and support from the US, bombed a facility at
which nuclear weapons were being developed with
assistance from North Korea.
and North Korea have denied that they are
cooperating in nuclear technology, and Pyongyang
issued a harsh condemnation of the Israeli
intrusion into Syrian airspace.
countries insist that the accusations have been
fabricated by the US for political reasons -
mainly targeting North Korea. Hawks, notably
former US ambassador to the United Nations John
Bolton, are concerned by the peaceful direction in
which the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear
program are going, preferring confrontation.
Joshua Landis, a professor at Oklahoma
University who is an expert on Syrian affairs and
runs Syriacomment.com, said: "Bolton represents
the crowd that is very distressed that the US has
declared defeat in North Korea by trusting the
North Koreans. They would like to scuttle that
A diplomat associated with the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was
quoted saying that the organization didn't know
anything about any nuclear facility in Syria.
Buthaina Shaaban, Syria's minister of
expatriate affairs, commented to Al-Manar TV, "All
this rubbish is not true. I don't know how their
imagination has reached such creativity." She
added, "Regretfully, the international press is
busy justifying an aggression on a sovereign
state, and the world should be busy condemning it
instead of inventing reasons and aims of this
The North Korea-Syria story
started when Andrew Semmel of the US State
Department claimed that Syria "might have"
obtained nuclear equipment from "secret
suppliers", adding that "there are North Korean
people there [in Syria]. There is no question
He repeated claims, made as
early as 2004, that a network run by Abdul Qadeer
Khan, the now-disgraced Pakistani nuclear
scientist who is believed to have supplied gas
centrifuges and uranium hexaflouride to North
Korea, operated from Syria. But there is no
evidence whatsoever - otherwise it would have
surfaced - of the Khan network operating from
Journalists in the US
took it from there, saying that North Korean
leader Kim Jong-il might be hiding material in
Syria, while pretending to rid his country of
nuclear weapons to improve relations with the US.
There were reports that three days before
the Israeli attack, a ship carrying North Korean
material labeled as "cement" unloaded its cargo in
Syria. That material, the reports said, was
believed to be nuclear equipment.
reports have not gone unchallenged. Joseph
Cirincione, author of Bomb Scare: The History
and Future of Nuclear Weapons and a senior
fellow and director for nuclear policy at the
Center for American Progress, said, "This story is
As mentioned above, the North
Korea story is not new. It started in 2004 when
Bolton, then under secretary for arms control,
accused Syria of harboring nuclear ambitions. This
was part of the stream of accusations against
Syria after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
First it was that cronies of Saddam
Hussein had fled to Damascus. When they were
arrested one after the other within Iraq, the
story was changed: Saddam's weapons of mass
destruction were hidden in Syria. When that proved
false, Bolton came out with his thundering
This prompted the IAEA to
investigate, after which it said there was no
evidence to back the claims. IAEA chief Mohamed
ElBaradei commented on June 26, 2004, "We haven't
gotten any piece of information on why we should
be concerned about Syria." David Albright, a
former United Nations weapons inspector to Iraq,
says that IAEA found Bolton's claims on Syria
words? Israel appeared to be trying to
defuse tensions with Syria this week, with Olmert
saying he was ready to start unconditional peace
talks with Damascus. The two countries have been
in dispute since Israel occupied the Golan Heights
in the 1967 Six Day War.
daily Tishreen was quick to respond: "What is new
in Olmert's proposals is the respectful tone, but
the rest is only a repetition of old proposals
aiming to trick and divide."
Olmert made a
similar offer during an interview with the Saudi
satellite TV channel Al-Arabiyya on July 11. "I am
ready to sit with you and talk about peace, not
war. I will be happy if I could make peace with
Syria. I do not want to wage war against Syria,"
This proposal was echoed by
President Shimon Peres on September 18, who added,
"We are ready for dialogue with Damascus."
In the wake of the air incursion, Israel
also transferred troops from the Golan Heights to
the Negev to defuse rising tensions on the border.
Damascus had been told this would happen.
Hours before the Israeli planes crossed
the Syrian border, Javier Solana, the European
Union's foreign-policy chief, delivered a message
from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that
troop deployment on the border with Syria would be
reduced to prevent an outbreak of war, insisting
that his country was not interested in war with
If this is the case, it does
not help explain just what the Israeli planes were
doing over Syria.